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English – UK or US?

I read a great article a couple of days ago on the BBC News website – “Britishisms and the Britishisation of American English“. For many years “Americanisms” have been sneaking into the British language, but it appears that, to a lesser extent, the reverse is also true!

Popular culture seems to be the main reason for much of this exchange of language. Many of the biggest films and TV programmes hail from the US and so, of course, the British are usually able to understand US English as we’re constantly exposed to it. For example, most British people understand words such as “hood” (bonnet), “trunk” (boot), “gas” (petrol), “sidewalk” (pavement) and “shopping mall” (shopping centre).

There are also spelling differences to consider. I think the general rules for converting from UK English to US English are:

  • If there’s an “s” pronounced like a “z”, replace the “s” with “z”
  • If there’s an “ou”, remove the “u”
  • If a word ends “re”, change it to “er”

These spelling differences can be tricky – as a computer programmer I’m getting very used to typing the word “colour” as “color” (otherwise it won’t work!). A colleague at work said something funny about the “ou” situation – “Right, we’ve gotten rid of the damn British, now let’s get rid of all those damn u’s!”.

Using slang is where we have to be careful. Because the languages are so similar, it’s easy to forget that what we say may be misunderstood. Back when I worked in Germany, there was an American woman working in the lab. One day she said to me “Hi, nice pants!”. I immediately panicked – was there a split in the fabric? Was my zip undone? It took me a while to realise that she was talking about my trousers!

The same colleague who had the “ou” theory also mentioned another slang word which could lead to misunderstandings. Is it safe to enter a corner shop in America and ask for “twenty fags, please”? Or to call out “I’ll be there in a minute, I’m just having a fag”? Possibly this particular slang word has two distinct meanings in both languages. If not, it would sound very odd. A “fag” in Britain being a cigarette, of course.

So, embrace both languages but think before you speak!

  1. September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am

    I read the article as well and loved it.
    I remember having to carry out an American project in the UK. We spent half a day translating the document.

    Like

    • October 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm

      Sounds like that project was quite a job.

      I can understand how slang words and phrases will be different in different countries, but many everyday words are different too!

      Like

  2. October 1, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Feel free to ask me any questions on Americanisms. I have found this site to be an invaluable resource: http://www.urbandictionary.com/ I had to look something up there this morning.

    As to fags, most of us are aware that fag means cigarette in British parlance, however, it would probably be safer to ask a clerk for smokes or for a specific brand. “Can I bum a smoke?” is a phrase we use, which would translate to “Please, sir, may I perchance borrow a fag?” or something.

    Like

    • October 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm

      Thanks! I’ll have to check out that site.

      The UK English for borrowing a cigarette is “Can I bum a fag?” Which could also be misinterpreted.

      It would also be interesting to find out why certain words became something else entirely, like “pavement” becoming “sidewalk” and “lift” becoming “elevator”.

      Like

  1. October 17, 2012 at 1:15 pm

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